Ah, Theodore Roosevelt. Is there any American president so revered? His mug is even chiseled into the side of Mount Rushmore. We call him a “progressive” today for supporting for things like land preservation and not supporting guys working in unsafe sausage factories that got ground up into said sausage, and to be fair, these are indeed progressive viewpoints (a century ago or now).
Often the subject of sprawling hagiographies and sweeping documentaries, old TR–along with Franklyn and Eleanor Roosevelt–just got the PBS/Ken Burns treatment in the new docu-series The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. And in a rare show of actually advocating an opinion in its daily staff editorial, The Maui News today called the series both “well done” and “excellent” (click here to read the editorial; subscription required).
“Theodore’s boisterous and courageous leadership style, love of nature and dedication to a progressive agenda are traced from San Juan Hill and the Rough Riders to his years in the White House–and beyond,” states the editorial. “His doomed attempt to return to the White House as a candidate of the Bull Moose Party in 1912 is a sad part of the story. He left politics too early and his efforts to return were rebuffed.”
Now I haven’t seen Burns’ series so I can’t speak to how the filmmaker portrays TR’s darker side, but I have read a book or two on Theodore Roosevelt–enough to know that The Maui News‘ characterization of his as a “wonderful leader” committed to “altruism” is beyond laughable. It’s an especially bizarre description for a man who, for reasons that had nothing to do with geopolitics or strategy, played a key role in the American takeover of Hawaii.
You can play the “context of the times” game, but even by 1900 standards, TR was a straight-up racist and white supremacist–facts that don’t appear anywhere in today’s Maui News editorial. But unlike a president like, say, Richard Nixon, who generally inspires most historians to point out what a prick the guy was, TR usually gets a pass. I say most, because historian James Bradley’s revisionist 2009 book The Imperial Cruise is very different.
Where other historians gloss over or even ignore Theodore Roosevelt’s racism, Bradley thrusts it in the reader’s face:
“In 1894, Teddy had penned an article entitled ‘National Life and Character’ in which he wrote that Blacks were ‘a perfectly stupid race’ and it would take ‘many thousand years’ before the Black became even ‘as intellectual as the [ancient] Athenian.'”
But that was way back in 1894. Certainly TR’s views changed, right? No, not really. Here’s Bradley quoting Roosevelt directly from 1897:
“Nineteenth-century democracy needs no more complete vindication for its existence than the fact that it has kept for the white race the best portions of the new world’s surface.”
Ironically, it’s Roosevelt’s views and actions concerning Hawaii that most show off his racism–views and actions that should give any newspaper publisher in the state pause before calling the former president “courageous.” Here’s Bradley quoting Roosevelt in 1896, a year that saw him rise from unknown New York police commissioner to Assistant Secretary of the Navy:
“We should annex Hawaii immediately. It was a crime against the United States, it was a crime against the white civilization, not to annex it two years and a half ago. The delay did damage that is perhaps irreparable; for it meant that at the critical period of the islands’ growth the influx of population consisted, not of white Americans, but of low caste laborers from the yellow races.”
Think about those words: “low caste laborers from the yellow races.” Indeed, Bradley wrote that in 1897, Roosevelt “deemed the Chinese a ‘race-foe’ and called upon the United States to maintain ‘race-selfishness’ to exclude ‘the dangerous alien who would be ruinous to the white race.'”
But even a barbarian like TR wasn’t above nuancing his racial overview. According to Bradley, Roosevelt actually admired one portion of the “yellow race:”
“Roosevelt… thought the Japanese people were more racially similar to Americans than were the Russians.”
Roosevelt’s desire to use U.S. to further the interests of the “white race” continued through the end of his presidency. According to Bradley, in February 1909, Roosevelt wrote a letter to Senator Philander Knox describing Hawaii as “America’s racial bulwark in the Pacific” and calling for the importation of “tens of thousands of Spaniards, Portuguese or Italians or of any of the other European races… in order that the islands may be filled with a white population of our general civilization and culture.”
Like I said, I don’t know how Burns treats any of this in his PBS series. But I do know how The Maui News chose to handle it.